It’s not (only) about the science

Teacher raises the issue of who shares risk

“I am very much confused by the petition request[ing] to open [schools] to full 5-day return while also implementing full infection control measures. This is objectively not possible.”

“Any return to school is critical, as soon as possible. The science supports this.”

ON THE ANNIVERSARY of our school shutdown and a year of living with COVID-19, I read a thread of posts on the Arlington List, my town’s web-based community forum. Two of these posts, displayed above, stand in for a larger debate.

We often speak about “following the science” when advocating for our preferred approach to COVID-19 schooling, but I think this may be misleading. Even if the underlying facts and statistical analysis were beyond dispute, we ultimately are deciding how much risk we are willing to assume ourselves, how much risk we are willing to subject our families to, and how much risk we dare to ask others to shoulder on our behalf. And while risk analysis may be a science, the decision to assume or impose a risk is a subjective and emotional one, reflecting personal needs and values.

It’s especially challenging when the risks have low probability but severe outcome. A classic example: an asteroid striking the Earth and killing many or all human beings. What are the odds? Can we assess them with a robust global network of robotic telescopes? And if we detect an object due to strike the Earth, can we alter its orbit? How much would it cost to do so? What other pressing needs would go unmet if we devote substantial resources to this?

I am an Arlington teacher working in person with small numbers of students. For my family and me, the risk of dying or experiencing long-term decline from COVID-19 is small, but the consequences are severe. For another family, remote or hybrid schooling poses a real risk of psychological harm to their child.

Another perhaps underappreciated aspect of the debate is who shares risk. If a child suffers severe harm from school closures, will that child and their family find themselves on their own? Conversely, if a teacher has to quarantine within her own home, will her students’ families help with bills, meals, laundry, or childcare? For a variety of cultural, political, and economic reasons, we Americans largely bear such risks at the individual and family level, and we tend to draw bright lines around our parameters of mutual responsibility.

In practice, this means that parents and politicians lobbying for schools to reopen are asking teachers to assume risks that they will not help teachers meet if the teacher is unlucky and contracts COVID-19. The social compact might evolve to help us more equally share risks and rewards, but for the foreseeable future, our state and federal governments are leaving us to wrestle with these trade-offs without a robust safety net.

For my part, I am dismayed that we Massachusetts teachers were to be vaccinated back in February, only to lose our place in the Phase Two line. Meanwhile, most local health departments lost the allocations that might have allowed them to vaccinate teachers in or near their workplaces. As I write, teachers are having to navigate challenging web sites and travel to vaccination sites – a tall order for those of us already working with children for a full school day. Worse, the clock is ticking. Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has mandated that elementary schools resume full-capacity in-person instruction by April 5, with middle schools to follow a few weeks later.

I also am dismayed that Massachusetts has relaxed restrictions on indoor dining and entertainment, against the advice of the US Centers for Disease Control’s new director. Together, these moves suggest that Gov. Charlie Baker is not really serious about students returning to the classroom. He cannot possibly have looked at these other decisions through a students-first lens.

Meet the Author

Joshua Roth

Teacher, Arlington Public Schools
Mine is just one point of view. I am not writing to compel readers to see things as I do. Rather, I would like to suggest that we talk more candidly about the value-laden processes of approaching and apportioning risk. I believe that it will remain difficult to find common ground on school and business reopenings if we are not honest about what risks we are willing to bear and which we are willing to share — and what we are willing to do (whether as volunteers or donors or taxpayers) for those who draw an unlucky hand in the high-stakes COVID-19 card game.

Joshua Roth lives and teaches in Arlington. This essay does not in any way represent the Arlington Public Schools, the Arlington Educational Association, or any other organization with which he is affiliated.